Arizona lawmakers approve bipartisan $18 billion budget
The Arizona Legislature approved a bipartisan $18 billion spending plan early Thursday that will make substantial investments in public schools, build new highways and pay down long-term debts.
Lawmakers in the House and Senate ended a months-long impasse, working through the night to approve the budget shortly before sunrise. Only a handful of dissenters from each party voted against the package of bills, and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey was expected to approve it.
“This is what our state, where voters are nearly evenly divided by party affiliation, has long asked of us — to work together,” said Rep. Reginald Bolding of Laveen, the top Democrat in the House.
The improbable bipartisanship was enabled by an unprecedented surplus topping $5 billion, allowing for a broad array of new spending and savings.
That includes $544 million for border security, roughly half of it for a wall, and $1 billion for highway construction, including widening Interstate 10 north of Casa Grande. State employees will get a raise, many for the first time in a decade. Hundreds of millions are set aside for water infrastructure as the state faces prolonged drought.
The budget also makes a $1.1 billion deposit into the pension fund for public safety and corrections officers, paying off the state's unfunded liability for future retirement benefits. And it puts another $425 million in the rainy day fund to help the state weather a potential recession.
It also eliminates the state equalization tax, a property tax for education, and backfills it with $330 million from the general fund.
The package of budget bills passed with overwhelming support, highly unusual in the modern era.
Republican leaders had struggled for months to craft a spending plan that could find unanimous support in the fractious GOP caucuses without relying on Democrats. Tiny majorities in both chambers meant opposition from a single Republican lawmaker was enough to sink the budget if Democrats were united in opposition.
Ironically, it was the Legislature's most conservative lawmakers who forced the hands of GOP leaders when they balked at initial, smaller spending proposals. After losing support on the right, House Speaker Rusty Bowers and Senate President Karen Fann had to look elsewhere for votes, and they found them across the aisle.
GOP leaders “decided to just take the easy road out, the path of least resistance and give up and just spend,” said Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a Scottsdale Republican who voted against the budget.
“The budget is not sound and its not reflective of my conservative values,” Ugenti-Rita said.
Nobody loves a budget once all the compromises are made, said Senate Majority Leader Rick Gray, R-Sun City.
“Every single budget's bad,” Gray said. “But for me, it’s encouraging that we have actually come together.”
The plan includes a handful of small, targeted tax cuts for farm machines and private planes but no large scale reductions. Republicans last year cut $1.7 billion in income taxes.
GOP and Democratic leaders agreed to add $526 million in new ongoing funding for K-12 schools, a substantial increase from the GOP's initial proposal. Their agreement adds $80 million in combined additional funding for Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University, bringing their funding boosts in line with additional money already allocated to University of Arizona.
They also agreed to technical changes in a formula for distributing money to schools and $4 million each for school testing and 2022 election costs. A proposed expansion of a tax credit to subsidize private school tuition was removed from the must-pass budget, likely dooming it.
Sen. Martin Quezada, a Glendale Democrat, spoke out against plans to spend $335 million for a wall on the southern border, which he said would be useless in stopping people from crossing.
“This is really just getting on a soap box and vilifying immigrants and creating a political point,” Quezada said.
But for Democrats, this may have been the last chance for the foreseeable future to make an imprint on the state budget. Republicans are widely expected to expand their majority in the 2022 election thanks to new district boundaries that appear to favor the GOP.
New funds for education
Education funding was the main sticking point. The plan includes more than $526 million in new ongoing funding for K-12 schools, a substantial increase from the GOP's initial proposal.
In a show of bipartisanship, Sen. Sean Bowie, a moderate Democrat, joined with moderate Republican Sen. Paul Boyer to push for more school funding. Bowie says it was a compromise
“This budget is not perfect,” Bowie said. “There have been things referenced that I’m not a big fan of as well. I had a bill that I really cared about, that I wanted included in the budget, a tax cut for low-income working families. I was told it was either that bill or more money for K-12 public schools. I chose public schools.”
Their agreement also boosts higher education spending, adding $80 million in combined additional funding for ASU and NAU, bringing their funding in line with additional money already allocated to University of Arizona.